The fire alarm went off a few days ago in our Central Park apartment building. It has went off twice before but always is shutoff within a couple of minutes. This time was different and it continued to ring. Its a loud, old-fashioned school bell type of alarm and iit really gets your attention, there is no way you would sleep through this thing. I was finishing up the morning shower when it started and as it continued I hurried up to put on my clothes, grab the passport and wallet, get on the shoes.... etc. etc.
I step out into the hallway and am checking things out for a smell of smoke... nothing. There is a woman who is also in the hallway by the elevators. And as I turn to step into the fire escape she casually pushes the button for her elevator and looks at me as if... so what? I left her there waiting for her elevator ride, next to the sign saying don't take the elevator in case of fire, and pushed through the fire escape door into the stairwell. I say pushed, because the door was partially blocked by a huge stack of cardboard boxes inside the stairwell. And this isn't uncommon as the trash bin is in the fire escape. Yes....... pure genius..... The best part is people like to smoke in there and put there cigs out on top of the trash bin.
So I live on the 25th floor, its not like its a short walk to ground level. Around the 15th floor the alarm goes off, but as I step out of the stairwell it starts again but there is still no sign of smoke. So I wait about a minute and it goes off again, this time permanently. The entire time I was on the stairs I never saw a single person, but I heard the elevator ding many times. And many of the floors trash areas were stacked with garbage and boxes. If anyone of these was even smoldering it would render that stairwell impassable, and it is the onlly fire escape for the tower.
I took the elevator down to the lobby and of course the woman I had seen on the 25th floor was long gone. Prbbably either completely unaware of why its important to not take an elevator in a fire, or quite certain only foreigners are stupid enough to even think about it. The best part is when you walk out of Central Park you can easily pass right in front of the old Mandarin Hotel, which became a 40+ story barbecue in February of 2009.
The really scary part was thinking about what would have happened if my wife had been home at the time. Trying to convince her to come with me to even leave the apartment, let alone take a stairwell instead of the elevator would have been an arduous task. Far worse though would be when it turned out to be a false alarm, because the next time it happened she would probably ignore it, especially if she was home alone.
The key to understanding Chinese reality is to understand that woman in the hallway. If you are an expat here - and you want to hold onto your morals, your common sense and all of those things you know to be right - then you are going to have to get used to those moments. And you have to have thick skin. Because many, many times people are going to treat you as if you were stupid for trying to do the right thing, even people you have close relationships with. You just have to have faith in yourself and move on. I have not sold my soul yet and I hope I never do.